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Helen - finishing up and moving on
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Name: Helen
PhD discipline: Chinese and German
Area(s) of work: International relations and research council work
Year of graduation: 2005
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

Now Playing: Helen - finishing up and moving on
Helen reviews the work she did during and after her PhD, and her subsequent career path.

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Transcript:

How did you end up in Taiwan?

That's where I'd gone to study in my second year as an undergraduate, when I was doing Chinese and German so I'd just chosen there rather than the mainland of China because less people went there from my year group and you'd be more plunged into the local culture and I made friends during that year. I kept going back every summer, I had a boyfriend in Taiwan so that was why I kept going back to Taiwan and why I chose it as the topic of my PhD, specifically Taiwanese literature.

So you went there to do some research during the second year of your PhD?

Yeah and then what happened then was I got a job and so I suspended my PhD studentship for six months while I was working, so I did part time study, part time collecting of resources and I was actually still working full time for probably about 11 months of that year and then I went back to the UK at the end of that year to carry on with my PhD.

How did you get to that work in Taiwan?

It was through a university undergraduate colleague who was now working there, so she just let me know that there was a possibility of maybe part time work there as an Education Counsellor, so once I'd gone there to talk to them and see what opportunities there were for working, at first I took a part time job and then they liked me and I liked them and they said would you take on a full time post and take on some more tasks.

What did that part time job involve?

The first one was education counselling, which basically meant sitting in the public offices of the British Council, giving people advice who were thinking about going to Britain to study. Then when they saw that I had sort of gender interests and academic interests and they saw that I was quite a good worker they said did I want to be a Projects Officer, which meant various different tasks. One was designing group study tour trips to the UK and getting insurance partners and travel agent partners for it and another was organising a gender studies mission, so again it was central to the topic of my own research really, getting people who did gender studies in the UK to come out to Taiwan to talk about gender studies and women studies as a potential topic for postgraduate study in the UK.

There was quite a lot of interest then in Taiwan at the time and I knew that because I was studying gender issues and so I could network for them and that was one of the big projects that I ran.

Were you working through Chinese?

No, mostly English, I mean in the office the language was mostly English, but when I went out to meet contacts or talk to people about the mission then I would be doing some things in Chinese, yes and that was definitely an advantage.

So at the end of that one year full time contract as agreed, that ended and I went back to my university in Scotland to carry on with the PhD.

So then it must have been a year, yeah, about a year that I spent back at the university, also doing part time work, annotation on a research project for somebody in another department, in Cognitive Studies Department, little bit of tutoring and then at the end of that year I got a job at the British Academy. So again it was still halfway through my PhD, nowhere near finished, but I knew that I'd rather have a job than just be studying, so I moved to London in January 2001, just about mid year three of my PhD, to take up another full time job.

What was the job you applied for at the British Academy?

That was an International Relations Assistant, requiring somebody who spoke Chinese, so it was circulated among all the Chinese departments in UK universities and that's traditionally how they advertise this opportunity. It's a job that usually has been done by people who have just graduated, so I saw this and knew that that would be the sort of job that I would like to do, an office environment where you were interacting with academics. The main purpose of that role is to network UK academics and give grants to UK academics to travel to and network with people in China.

Do you think the experience you had in Taiwan doing the PhD really helped in getting you that job?

Yeah, I'm sure that one of the reasons why I got the job versus other applicants, who possibly also could speak Chinese who had undergraduate degrees is that I really had a research interest, so I fitted more closely even than normal graduates in Chinese, I fitted the profile of somebody who cared about the work of the British Academy which is supporting post doctoral research, so for sure. Not necessarily the time I spent in Taiwan, but the fact that I was a postgraduate doing some research in that area meant that I was attractive to the employers and my main stakeholders would be other academics with whom I would have quite a lot of shared interest. So that was a very strong factor in me getting that job.

What was the interview like?

Very friendly and easy. I'm generally pretty good at interviewing anyway. I didn't know that at the time because I hadn't had many job interviews, but there were two people there, the person who would be my boss and the head of HR. They had a fairly set series of questions and it was just clear to them as much as to me that in almost every aspect I would really enjoy this job.

The only thing they were worried about is that I would find it too menial. If I wanted to be an academic would I really be interested in doing day to day boring routines of keeping up Excel spreadsheets and entering grant details into databases, something like that and I told them I would be more than happy to do that sort of thing and in fact that's what I wanted. I wanted to get away from being purely academic to doing something practical and to having feedback from other people and helping other people because I had realised that this was more how I felt rewarded than by doing academic work. They were quite reassured and I was right, you know, that is true of my personality.

I was absolutely deliriously happy for at least a year. Within two or three years I was experiencing frustrations at that organisation and how things worked there, but never any regrets about not doing university teaching. I liked the structure and the social life of an office much better than the structure and social life that I knew in the academic environment that I'd been experiencing.

And on a day to day basis what did the job involve?

Running grant schemes for people who were wanting to get money to go to China, running meetings and minuting those meetings and following up on action points of a China Panel, a committee for the British Academy and then organising incoming visits of Chinese academics, who were coming to Britain. So some of them would have rough ideas of what they wanted to do and what research area they were interested in and I did research on their behalf about who would be relevant academics that they could go and visit and see and I would organise programmes for them. Sometimes that was also for delegations of people.

So really all sorts of details, from airport pick up to hotel bookings to travel arrangements and recommendations for making contacts with UK academics about areas they could study. That was then in all areas of humanities and social science research, it wasn't necessarily connected to China.

You then decided to move on from that job. What happened? 

I had been increasingly frustrated in the job. I think I'd applied for one or two jobs during that time, one, I'd applied for a BBC Chinese radio service post and then another job at the Great Britain China Centre, which was running small projects funded often by the SCO or Europe. So I had actually applied for a couple of jobs and then another opportunity came up at the Royal Society just next door.

I heard about the opportunity because I knew and worked with colleagues who were in the International Department there so it was just another application for a job which would involve Chinese and this time I got it.

Could you tell me about the interview for that job?

Yeah, again it felt fairly easy. I knew the two people who interviewed me for the job because I'd been working with them relatively closely as colleagues from a similar organisation previously, so it was almost a sort of collegiate, jokey atmosphere. I'd prepared fairly well for it and I knew a lot about what the role entailed, so I did have quite a lot to say about what I thought should be done in the job and how I saw the role and why I would be good for the role.

It felt fairly informal, they went through a series of structured questions and again my experience really was quite well tailored to this job. I'd been doing a very similar job in a very similar field previously.

Did your PhD come up at all in either interview?

In the first one the main question had been 'how are you going to manage juggling a PhD and this job?' and I said 'well, I'll just do it part time and I'm not necessarily that committed to finishing it anyway', so their main worry had been also whether I would be happy with doing routine admin work when I was basically interested in research. I'd let them know that my priority probably lay more with the office than with the research.

By the time of the second job, I'd already finished my PhD so I don't recall that it featured at all in the interview, they probably would have noted that I had finished it and I made the case in my application that being able to juggle doing a PhD alongside a full time job was one of the examples of how I could multi-task and do lots of things at once and that I was genuinely interested in academic endeavour which is what the Royal Society does.

So I was still using the fact that I had academic background and academic qualifications as a strong push for getting this job.

What did this job involve?

Very similar to the British Academy, it's networking scientists, UK scientists and Chinese scientists, so no grant administration in this role, it was mainly about higher level relationships, delegations to and from partner academies in China and in Taiwan and organising some networking events.

So devising strategy for how the organisation could raise its profile with Asian partner countries, not just China, also India, Japan, Korea and doing some networking with scientists in events and delegations.

Did it matter do you think that you had an arts and humanities background when you were working with scientists?

Not particularly, as my role was manager for Asia in the international policy section, the fact that I knew Asia, political, cultural, that sort of environment was more important. The job advert did say that they hoped for somebody with either some scientific background or an international background and liaison with Asia, so they were open as well at that point to hiring somebody who might have less knowledge or understanding of Asia but be more proficient with science. I argued in my interview, quite convincingly I think, that even if I had been a scientist, it would have only been in one field of science by definition and as the Royal Society represents all fields of science it wasn't necessarily the case that really would have been of any particular advantage. Whereas knowing about Asia and having lived in Asia and having worked inter-culturally was very important if you were going to network with China because that is a more difficult country to network in if you don't have any understanding of the culture or the language. So for sure that had a plus factor in terms of me being selected to the job.

Going back to the first job, how did you manage to juggle the PhD and full time employment?

Well most of the time I just didn't do the PhD, I just neglected it and otherwise well, reading in the evening and spending at least one day of a weekend doing some work on the PhD, not taking so many holidays because I had to carry on with the PhD, but my general perception of that time was that for large periods of time I just neglected the PhD completely and then worked on it intensively in short bursts when I had holidays.

In 2003 I took nine months sabbatical from my job in order to finish because it had become clear to me that I was never going to finish unless I did, so I took those nine months and got incredibly depressed, didn't do very much work on the PhD at all, mostly just sat at home and smoked cigarettes and wondered why I was doing this. It was quite difficult for my husband too because – well, we weren't married yet, but it meant he had to support me and my parents supported me through part of that nine months, but at least by the end of it I had nearly finished, so I went back to work after my agreed nine months non-paid sabbatical and then finished at the end of 2004 only because that was the deadline.

I took two or three weeks holiday, went to a friend's house and spent something like 15 hours a day writing and probably wrote about 40,000 words, something like that, about half of the thesis during those three weeks and then handed it in. It was all a bit of a roller coaster.

Then how long did you have to wait between submission and viva?

Not long at all, they gave me the viva early – well mid January, so it was very quick after that.

So can you then talk me through what happened post-submission in some detail?

OK, so I'd handed in – I had minor corrections which were doable in just a few months, very small corrections, so in terms of career nothing had changed, I'd got my PhD, but I was still in my full time post at the British Academy.

I wasn't in a particular hurry to move on, although I had started to become a bit frustrated with that job, so I was networking to see what other opportunities there were and my perception always was that there weren't too many jobs which involved Chinese, but I was open to opportunities with organisations, say like the British Council and in the end what happened was my close contacts at the Royal Society, which is the sister academy to the British Academy let me know when there was a job opportunity there for Chinese and so I applied for that.

When did your time as Manager for Asia in the International Policy section of the Royal Society come to an end? How did you move on from that?

Well in fact I'm still employed by the Royal Society. I'm on secondment to the Research Council's UK, so again this was an opportunity that came up from within work networks. While at the Royal Society I knew about the plans of various other stakeholders, government and not government, about engaging with China, and I heard that the Research Councils were going to open an office in China, so I immediately called one of my contacts in one of the Research Councils and said 'ooh, I've heard about this policy'. I knew he could speak Chinese and had some experience in Hong Kong and said 'are you going to be applying for the job, tell me more about it'. He explained the scenario and that in theory only one post was going to be created to go out to China to help set up this office. I said to him 'of course you should apply for this job and you need an assistant and that should be me, so I think you ought to tell them that there needs to be two people at least setting up this office, just for the initial stage'. That worked out, he did do that, he did apply for the job and he was tasked with helping develop the business plan and he wrote two people in it and I then interviewed when the post of Deputy Director was advertised and clearly was very well positioned to do it.  They were only interviewing internally, meaning among the Research Councils or close partner bodies and probably that's because they knew there was an interest from close partner bodies because of my interest, so they advertised I think just among the Research Councils, the British Academy and Royal Society for a secondment opportunity. They got a fair number of applications, but not that many people with the right profile, with administration plus an interest in research, so I again probably quite easily slid into that post.

The initial terms of the secondment were for one year, I then extended it for a second year, but have become pregnant so we've terminated the secondment early and I'll be starting maternity leave now and then going back to the Royal Society.

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